It started out as a seeming faux pas; now it’s a slogan for the right. Fox Business commentator Todd Wilemon recently made waves when he told a “Daily Show” correspondent a way to defeat the problems of poverty: “If you’re poor, stop being poor.”
While Wilemon was mocked on the left, conservatives lauded him. “‘Stop being poor’ has worked very well for the United States,” said one writer at National Review.
Can Americans just “stop being poor”? Why or why not? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
Snark all you like, but “stop being poor” isn’t the worst advice in the world. Not even close.
“Stop being poor” might be best understood as quintessentially American shorthand for refusing to accept your economic lot in life. Although people are born into poverty, and it’s never been easy to climb from the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, it remains the case that nobody is condemned to remain poor in America. Not even now.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that the liberal hipsters at “The Daily Show” and their perpetually aggrieved fellow travelers in the progressive blogosphere would take offense so easily. It’s no accident that the Great Recession and its aftermath have fostered a growing sense of fatalism that the Land of Opportunity isn’t what it used to be. By many measurements, the country is stagnating — and government is largely to blame.
Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — food stamps, to you and me — has grown more than 70 percent during Barack Obama’s time in the Oval Office. Congress is bickering over whether and how to extend unemployment benefits, now at 99 weeks. The president recently announced he would change the nation’s workplace overtime rules without the consent of Congress. Last month, he unilaterally raised the minimum wage for federal contractors.
As it happens, President Obama’s budget proposal notes that 70 percent of federal spending this year will be in the form of direct payments to individuals. “These government transfers now account for 15 percent of GDP,” writes John Merline at Investor’s Business Daily. That’s a record high. And, no, that isn’t a good thing.
All of this suggests government is trying to usurp the private sector and the free market as drivers of prosperity and upward mobility. But it doesn’t work. It’s never worked in America.
“Food stamps did not make food plentiful and cheap,” notes National Review roving correspondent Kevin Williamson. “More farmland, better irrigation systems, Monsanto lab geeks and GPS-enabled combines did that.”
In short, government regulation and redistribution won’t help people “stop being poor.” Innovation, education, entrepreneurship, creativity — the stuff that government can only encourage, but never mandate — is what the poor need to improve their lot in life.